"So it really is a portmanteau of bros and rosé?" asked the chief subeditor? "Yes," I replied. "I'm afraid it is." Just about the only thing that's hard to swallow at Bar Brosé is the name. Unless of course you somehow object to natural wines, loud music, beer in cans or beetroot in your Negroni. It's a narrow slice of good times perfectly primed to the whims and wants of Darlinghurst circa now, and it's nothing if not fun.
The space, a sort of corridor running between Victoria Street and Darlinghurst Road, seems much, much bigger somehow than when it was The Passage, or even L'otel before it - the arterial plaque of layered renovations scraped away to reveal a series of rooms that are light and not without brightness in the late afternoon. It's a remarkable transformation.
This is the second venture from the team behind Acme, and they've deployed the same designers to winning effect. Luchetti Krelle has worked all the space-making tricks, lining shallow archways with mirror and strips of light, and throwing around plenty of white marble and pale timber, accenting them with hints of bronze. Though it has seating options other than high stools, it's decidedly more bar than restaurant, but in some ways feels more grown up than Acme just the same. (Or at least it does till the lights drop way down and the music goes way up, soaking the room in Sade, Bowie, Billy Idol and, less explicably, The Eagles.) This may be a sophomore project with a frat-boy name, but the look is by no means undergraduate.
And just as the menu at Acme can't really be called Italian, speaking more of chef Mitch Orr's accumulated experiences both cooking and eating than his fidelity to the cucina vera, Bar Brosé is only very broadly French. Its food reflects the sum of chef Analiese Gregory's travels and interests, projected, albeit, in the sort of high resolution she picked up in years of work at Quay, the Meurice in Paris and with Michel Bras in the Aubrac.
It's also drinking food. When Gregory was thinking about the menu, fellow chef Jonathan Barthelmess, of The Apollo, suggested she start not with the sort of food she was used to cooking at fine-diners but rather with what she enjoyed cooking for herself. Diners fronting up looking for Quay or Bras-style cooking at Victoria Street prices may leave bewildered, but for the rest of us Brosé holds much to delight and occasionally thrill.
Gougères there may be, but they speak as much of drinking wine gathered with friends around an Aga in Hobart as they do any Parisian cave à vin. Galileo described wine as "sunlight held together by water", and there's a similar magic at work here in these airy puffs of Comté cheese and butter baked with a trace of flour. They're six bucks a pop, true, but they're wide, biscuit-shaped things twice as big as the usual walnut-sized gougère, and inarguably the perfect way to commence an evening of wine drinking and conviviality. Even more so when there's a fine Zalto crystal glass of cloudy, zesty sparkling savagnin from Canberra vintners Sassafras set before you.
I'd like to award bonus points to team Brosé for furnishing hand-towels with the gougères. It's a tiny thing, but ambitious restaurants just about everywhere else in the world give you something to wipe your fingers with before you're served food to be eaten with your hands. Nothing too Howard Hughes, just common sense, but almost no one in Australia thinks to do it. It's a typically thoughtful touch from the Acme/Brosé floor team. Acme is an acronym of its partners' first names, Andy Emerson, Cam Fairbairn, Mitch Orr and Ed Loveday, three of whom are front-of-house people, and the addition of Gregory to the fray at Brosé has by no means turned the place into one of those increasingly hard to stomach chef-run places. Service here is still considered a drawcard in itself.
The drinks package at Acme was no slouch, but Brosé takes it up several notches. Somm Gavin Wright has moved across to the new venue, and Loveday is behind the bar. They're joined by Katrina Birchmeier, the talented sommelier who was a founding partner of Hobart restaurant Garagistes. The list the three write together buzzes with interest. The mark-ups are reasonable, and though the tilt is towards the natural and the unusual, there's also wine here that will bring pleasure through more conventional means. Headings such as "crisp and lean whites" and "reds with curve and grip" are as friendly as they are useful. (The latter section is complemented by a quote from the rapper and actor Queen Latifah: "I would say I'm voluptuous. Statuesque. Definitely curvaceous.")
The rosé section - or brosé, if we must - is tight but potent, listing the savoury likes of Gut Oggau's superb "Winifred" blaufränkisch and cult Italian producer Le Coste's aleatico alongside the fresh and more classical likes of the 2014 "Corail" from Château de Roquefort in Provence. The by-the-glass selection is substantial, with most things also offered in 250ml carafes, and the level of service is generally very impressive, so you by no means need Birchmeier or Wright working your table to drink well. Grab their attention, though, if you want to go deeper. You'll be in safe hands.
Speaking of hands, you'll want to wrap yours around the late-night sandwich. It's inspired by the after-hours toasties Gregory liked to whip up for her friends in the kitchen while she worked at Acme. Its current incarnation it combines Christmas-style leg ham (you can taste the pineapple in the glaze) with crème fraîche, Comté and 'nduja in a way that's buttery, rich and wholly decadent. It's probably something best shared. ("Late-night sandwich?" asks a smart-mouthed pal from Melbourne. "Is that legal in Sydney?")
Gregory's cuisine at Brosé is frequently exuberant, even if the menu isn't especially long or the servings especially large. Raw kingfish becomes a textural vehicle for the bright, floral flavours of quince juice, capers and warrigal greens rather than the other way around, but that doesn't make it any less of a fingerlicker. Strips of raw beef and raw mushroom dusted with coffee and strewn with raspberries make for a busy composition, though, that doesn't really seem to find resolution.
Bar Brosé's blooming onion with tofu sauce
The presence of the "blooming onion", a whole onion sliced to resemble something like a waratah blossom, then battered and deep-fried, much in the manner of the Bloomin' Onion served at the Outback Steakhouse chain, is a head-scratcher. At least it is until it hits the table; the warmth of the cayenne in the batter, the gooeyness of the onion petals and the heat of the pickled peppers in the mayo-like tofu sauce really pop when they're paired with taut wines.
It's an in-jokey sort of menu at any rate. "No cream allowed" reads a gratuitous aside next to the spaghetti carbonara, a nod to the (sensibly) doctrinaire stance Acme chef and Brosé partner Orr takes on the Roman classic. You don't need to be in on the gag to savour the dish on its own merits. Romans and other carbonara pedants might hanker for pasta that's even more al dente (possibly standing straight up in the bowl), but the egg yolks, cheese and finely cut cured pork are nicely emulsified, and it's peppery as all get-out. Very much a case of a smart chef knowing when to leave well enough alone. And it's $20.
There's plenty of dairy going on pretty much everywhere else. Butter lies pooled in the base of many a bowl - notably in a likeable dish of barely solid gnocchi paired with salty konbu butter and the twang of finely sliced lap cheong sausage. There's gai lan in there too, the smaller leaves sautéed whole, the thicker stems sliced thin. Oily, but fun.
Then there's the poulet au vin de Marrickville. In France, poulet au vin jaune is traditionally made with the sherry-like oxidised yellow wines of the Jura; Gregory sauces her bird, cut into pieces on the bone and complemented by shiitakes, with cream and a combination of Brian pinot gris, Pennyweight oloroso and a splash of Shaoxing. The inclusion of foie gras butter in the mix and a garnish of crisp chicken skin follows the line of thinking that too much is never enough. This may just be the dish that introduces a new generation to the joys of chicken in a cream sauce.
Brosé weaves when you expect it to duck. It's a wine bar, and it trades in food that, in the absence of much lightness, freshness and greenery on the menu, absolutely needs wine at the table to work. But by the same token there's no cheese (or at least no cheese served on its own), very nearly no charcuterie, and, when they first opened, no bread. The no-bread thing was strange when there's so much that needs sopping up. They bake a variety of breads every day to serve with the likes of the terrine of the week. The bay-leaf loaf Gregory offers with a shimmering brawn paired with pickled mushrooms, celery and rhubarb is superb.
Desserts are a tough sell for the wine crowd. Gregory packs plenty of interest into hers nonetheless, cutting buffalo yoghurt sorbet and Italian meringue with maraschino cherries, and playing Fernet Branca, walnut and chocolate off an ice-cream flavoured with fennel she gathers in the wild. But it's a salute to her time working with Michel Bras that takes the cake: thin rounds of potato cooked in sugar water, then browned and crisped into wafers sandwiching brown-butter mousse and salted caramel, dusted with a powder of potato skins. It's a thing of beauty. And at $12 it puts just about every over-fondled $18 dessert in this town to shame.
"Is it all too much?" I asked Max Allen, our wine editor. We were eating gougères made with Comté and drinking Arbois Cuvée Sacha, a sublime oxidised savagnin-chardonnay from Jacques Puffeney, a fêted Jura winemaker who, in a former life, also made Comté. Speakers blared Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". What, he said, the Queen Latifah reference on the wine list? The uplifting '80s stadiumpop? The oxidised wines and the share plates and the no bookings and the onion and the house-blended fennel sencha? "If it's going to work anywhere, it's going to work here," he said. "Besides, I love this song."